When teaching a survey class of Russian literature, one of the more vexing questions is which text to pick. You want to give students an idea of the breadth and richness of Russian literature, but not overwhelm them with impossible page counts. Of course they SHOULD read “And Quiet Flows the Don,” “Life and Fate,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “The Gulag Archipelago,” and many more things beside, but let’s face it: neither they nor you are going to get through all that in one semester. So turning to a short story collection is a necessary compromise.
For my survey class last fall, I decided to try something new and experiment with “50 Writers,” and I felt it worked quite well. Although by its nature it includes none of the epics for which Russian literature is justly famous, it does have a sampling of most of the major writers of the 20th century, as well as a number of lesser-known but still important ones. It contains some of the usual suspects–e.g., excerpts from Babel’s “Red Cavalry Tales,” “Cloud, Lake, Tower” by Nabokov, sketches from Bunin, Zoshchenko, and Kharms–as well as less-anthologized works by well-known authors such as Sholokhov and Solzhenitsyn, and a sampling of contemporary authors like Pelevin, Petrushevskaya, and Ulitskaya. Some of the most exciting finds for me were stories by less-translated authors such as the poignant “Experience in Demonstrating Mourning” by Marina Vishnevetskaya and the breathtaking “The Last War Hero” by Oleg Ermakov, which demonstrate the continuing vitality of Russian literature in the post-Soviet period.
Although I enjoyed reading the collection tremendously (I read it all the way through, and then re-read the stories I’d selected for the class when they were assigned), my students did find the overall impact of the anthology to be rather downbeat. Although my response to that is “Welcome to Russian literature!” teachers may want to keep that in mind when assigning stories; even the comic authors such as Kharms were so much darker than what my poor American students were used to that the experience was more off-putting for them than anything. A more serious problem with the collection is the comparative dearth of female authors, who make up only about 10% of the authors surveyed. That, however, is more the fault of Russian literature, which for all its richness and diversity has always been heavily male-dominated, much more so than, say, English literature, than that of the anthologizers, who made a point of including not only established stars like Tolstaya and Petrushevskaya, but also Teffi, who is just now starting to be translated into English in a serious way, as well as the aforementioned Vishnevetskaya. All in all, an excellent teaching tool, and also a good choice for anyone wishing simply to acquaint themselves further with the different facets of 20th-century Russian literature.